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Sunday, 21 September 2014





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Western Europe in the age of renaissance and reformation

"Italy led the way in the education of the western races, and was the first to realise the type of modern as distinguished from classical and medieval life". - J.A. Symonds

The term 'renaissance' was borrowed from the French language. It has a wide meaning. Renaissance signifies the cultural achievements of Europeans between 1300 and 1600 which mark the passage from the Middle Ages to the modern world. These include not only such higher accomplishments as art, music, literature and science, but also far-reaching changes in the economic bases of life, the structure of society and the organisation of states on the other hand.

The word 'reformation' is applied to the upheaval of the 16th century which shattered the unity of the Christian faith in western Europe. A State church arose in England which began by denying Papal headship but soon accommodated itself to Lutheran and Calvinist influences within its fold. Lutheranism took away from Rome the obedience of the majority of Germans and Scandinavians. Calvin led great numbers of the lower classes of Switzerland, France and other lands out of the Catholic fold. The Papacy, once a world power which had challenged the empire for the supremacy of the world was driven even out of the city of Rome. The expression reformation was more a revolution than a reform of the old faith and church.


In the age of renaissance commerce, industry and the use of coined money became a marked feature of life in the more advanced centres of Europe.

A capitalist society was emerging. An economic revolution of the first magnitude was accomplished. As commerce, industry and the use of coined money progressed, towns sprang up in large numbers. They became more populous and wealthy. The centre of social life shifted. It was no longer the nobleman's castle, or the Bishop's Palace, crowded and busy towns supported by trade and manufacture took their place. Mercantilism came into being. Business practices were elaborated, especially after the new geographic discoveries.

The realms of scientific thought were peculiarly enlarged. A better type of education, adequate for most requirements of the new life, was evolved. The invention of printing became the peculiar instrument of its diffusion. As the new economics and society transformed political life, a better and more modern analysis of the State became necessary.


A science of politics, freed from theological ethics was produced. The insistent demands of the changing conditions of life made necessary a new attitude towards the world. Men professed very ascetic ideals in the middle ages; to deny unduly the claims of society and the needs of the flesh was thought by many to be the highest moral attitude. The all pervading influence of the clergy and their extensive economic, political, and ecclesiastical privileges apparently stood in the way of a fuller appreciation of the worthiness of man's secular activity. But this changed in the renaissance.

Man's outlook became more secular; it revolted against the view that the life beyond was more important than the things of this world.

This secular tendency, together with other factors, produced Protestantism which shattered the traditional unity of western Christianity. Europe of the Renaissance was much smaller than it is today. Its eastern boundary lay beyond Budapest. This line separated Finns and Poles and Slovaks from the vast plans to the East occupied by Russians and other people.

Throughout this region, beginning with the 12th century, great economic changes were in progress with profoundly modified ways of living. Men began to adopt new conceptions of state, society and life.

The revival of trade and industry, the use of coined money, and the rise of towns which began in the 11th century were among the most significant social and economic events in the entire history of the Occident. The age of the renaissance was an age of urban life.

Lion's share

Northern Italy occupied the centre of the economic stage. Lombardy and the Adriatic Sea became the chief corridor through which passed the ever-growing volume of goods to and from the East. Venice at the head of the Adriatic early secured a lion's share of this trade.

In the 15th century Venice was the most remarkable commercial centre of the Occident.

Thus in the age of Renaissance commerce and industry begot towns, towns begot wealth and wealth begot aristocracy. Renaissance culture was truly the culture of the bourgeoisie.

It first came into existence at the close of the Middle Ages in an atmosphere of opulence developed in the trading and industrial centres of Tuscany and Northern Italy. The distinguishing features of the new culture were its secular character and its keen interest in the facts and experiences of everyday practical life. Theological preoccupation and the rigours of religious discipline, especially as they concerned wealth, could no longer play a leading role in intellectual endeavour. It seemed that the development of all business, government, military matters, diplomacy, and social problems called forth so much mental activity as to thrust traditional theological speculation into the background.


Another feature of the renaissance was the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a capitalist class. Idealists who conceived a romantic affection for the Middle Ages have often represented the social and economic regime of those days as a model of justice. Nothing could be more erroneous. Then, even more than now, the earth was encumbered by its poor. The growth of capital was accompanied by a gross inequality in the division of wealth. Workers remained poor, ill-fed, ill-housed, irregularly employed, disconnected, and disposed to rebellion. Townsmen or the bourgeoisie, differed so vastly from the peasantry from which they mostly came from, that they formed a new class by the side of the older groups, the nobility, clergy and peasantry.

The development of an urban and mercantile life caused society to shift from its old agrarian basic to the shift from its old agrarian basis to the new industrial and commercial foundations. Secular governments were becoming more powerful because of these changes. A serious crisis confronted the church during this time. The church, which had been established during the Roman Empire possessed extensive political privileges and an enormous amount of land. It was a powerful political and economic competitor of princes.

It had elaborated a vast system of dogma and enjoyed greater sway over the souls of men than did any other organisation.

Renaissance was also a time of great intellectual advancement. There were splendid developments in literarute. The religious drama of the middle ages vanished and in its place appeared the secular works of writers like Shakespeare and Marlowe. Thus the foundations of modern drama were laid. Crude prose and poetic forms gave way to more highly furnished productions.

The sonnets of petrarch, the epics of Ariosto and Tasso, and the prose of boccaccio, comines and Calvin are products of the new age. At the hands of such masters the mother tongues received artistic polish so that they became adequate vehicles of thought in a society of growing complexity.

Francesco Petrarch was the first to give expression to the new spirit of humanism, the attitude that secular concerns of life were good and should not be treated with ascetic denial. Humanism the product of an environment created by the wealth and energy of a new class, the bourgeoisie.

Petrarch and Boccaccio together founded not only Italy's national literature, but a new literature of Renaissance. Humanism was a revolt against many features of medieval society.

The later part of the Renaissance thoughts was expressed by a group of literary geniuses of the highest order, of whom eramus was the most influential.


In him were united all the ethical and intellectual conceptions which that age of revolt brought forth. He was the first modern man of letters to rely almost entirely upon the printing press for the diffusion of his ideas, and he addressed his thoughts to all reading Europeans. Few men before or since have exerted so powerful an influence upon their contemporaries. Another aspect, especially striking in this age was the magnificence of roman architectural models. Michelangelo, Sansovino, and Palladio carried this art to perfection.

Sculpture attained a classical finality in three short generations from Donatello to Michelangelo.

Masaccio began a revolution in pictorial art. Its originality and magnificence were brought to the highest excellence by Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael and the Venetian School.

Medieval Music, developed so splendidly by the flemings, was amplified and perfected by Palestrina and his followers. During the Renaissance European culture turned from unattainable ideals to mature and reality.

Europe especially Western Europe gradually succumbed to the charm of Renaissance thought that emanated from Italy. Which had a transforming effect on the rest of Western Europe.

Merchant, banker and artisan whose sturdy interest in material things made possible a civilisation in Europe that produced artists, poets and religious leaders.

Thus a solid foundation was laid for a modern secular society in the western world.

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